The Test of Time: Robocop (1987)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, and Ronny Cox

I have to admit Robocop is a special flick for me. Growing up, my parents thankfully never screened movies or tried to insulate us from them, so we were exposed to whatever HBO would give us back in the day. Robocop was one of those films (could have been Showtime, but we’ll go HBO) that aired all the damn time, and I soaked in every minute of it. I still remember not only being shocked by the violence, but by the presentation of the whole thing. Sure, it looked cool, but even as a little Doom, I knew more lurked beneath the surface. This wasn’t a carbon copy sci-fi movie. This one had balls, brains, and buckets of blood thanks to the great Paul Verhoeven. 

I also have to admit I wasn’t planning to tackle Robocop for this column for another six months or so, but the trailer made me think differently. Personally, I hated the idea of a remake and thought the initial behind the scenes pictures looked really shitty, but now that I’ve seen the trailer, I’m…curious. While Gary Oldman looks like he’s back to playing “conservative” Oldman, I’m hoping Michael Keaton gets all nutty with his "Dick Jones" role. Dude deserves a massive comeback. Regardless, that one will never touch a true sci-fi classic.

Under the examination: Robocop.

The hero has arrived.

THE STORY: In a crappy futuristic Detroit, where crime and corruption has overwhelmed the city to the point of bankruptcy (the future?), the police have been completely outnumbered and outgunned. After one cop, Alex Murphy, is brutally gunned down, he’s rebuilt by OCP, a company willing to capitalize on policing. Not only do they want to create a new Detroit, but a new cop…a robot cop…Robocop. With only a hint of human memory and human body parts remaining, Robocop takes on local criminals until their trial of carnage leads him back to those who build him. Oh, and lots of gore and mayhem happen in-between that stuff, along with a nice touch of humanity. Not only is the film visually stimulating, it has a hell of a social message to go with it. 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Robocop packs a punch like few other films can or ever have. The idea of a big-budget movie pushing hard social/political satire, using actual emotion, and spraying ridiculous violence seems a little silly today. Oh sure, all movies pretend to be deep thinking and provocative while entertaining, but very, very few manage to pull off that trio. Let’s face it. If the words “big-budget” get attached to a project that means it needs to be digestible for the masses. In others words, keep it simple, stupid. However, its clear from the opening minutes nothing is simple about Robocop, and that’s what cements its status as an absolute classic. From the news reports to the boardroom meeting, we understand this future within minutes. 

That about sums up the personality of the film. 

The satire hasn’t faded a bit in the decades that’ve passed. Clearly, the movie is a reaction to the Regan rule of the 1980s, where many a folk thought capitalism had gone a bit too far. The media clips, the advertising (have family night with Nuke 'Em!) and the corporations get theirs without feeling forced. OCP represents everything that could go wrong with a company, where greed overtakes logic. With Verhoeven not being American, he brings a unique outsiders view into American culture, for better or worse. 

At the same time, from an emotional perspective the film gives its “tin man” a real heart because the empathy for a man wearing a silver plastic suit gushes. It’s not manufactured. We sympathize with a machine. When we revisit Murphy's empty house with him and we learn his wife and kid (who sure loves guns) have moved on, its dually devastating...for him and viewers. A massive kick in the balls. It’s powerfully simple though because his family only appears through flashbacks, already a memory as soon as he’s “dead.” Even the continual re-humanizing by his partner (Nancy Allen) always reminds us there’s more to the story.

But I think Robocop is best remembered for its violence. It was jaw dropping back then…and it’s jaw dropping now. I (and I assume many others) have raved about Dredd's artistic violence. But Robocop perfected that art first because this is a damn brutal film from start (ED 209 boardroom killing and Murphy’s death by crazy Kurtwood Smith and friends) to the end (worst death award goes to Emil, killed by a flood of acid). I particularly always think of Murphy's death near the beginning. It's still a difficult scene to watch.

Oh, and Robocop has some of my favorite movie lines ever. “I’d buy that for a dollar.” / “Think you could outsmart a bullet?” / “Can you fly, Bobby.” / "Buddy, I think you’re slime." / "Well give the man a hand."  And those are just a few. Hell, I nearly forgot about the cast. Smith as Clarence J. Boddicker, Cox as Dick Jones, Miguel Ferrer as Bob Morton, Ray Wise as Leon C. Nash, and my personal favorite, Paul McCrane as Emil M. Antonowsky. Great character names, man. They all sound like nasty, terrible people surviving in an even worse place. 

Nah, nah, nah, nah...

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I know this is an element that I keep coming back to, but the effects are perhaps the only thing that dates the film, but only to a point. To be honest, I like the stop motion sequences, but they do look...old. While some might bitch about the social commentary, it actually still holds up now perhaps more than ever. The idea that Detroit HAS disintegrated to the point of bankruptcy seems amazing. Entire areas, blocks upon blocks, sit vacant. The notion of privatizing policing doesn’t sound as far fetched as it once did considering budget crunches and destabilization of government. If no one wants to risk their lives going into “Crime Alley”, then why not send in the ‘bots? Oh, wait. "What Blows Now" section. Um, for a futuristic film, you’d think they would have done a better job of not making the clothing and hairstyles so…1980s. Besides that I'd say Robocop hasn't faded yet. 

THE VERDICT: The effects might not be crisp and clear and the 80’s hairdos reek of the well, 80s, but nothing will diminish the impact of Robocop. For such a stupid premise and a silly looking character, this is one bad ass flick. By the way, the opening sequence with ED 209 is perhaps one of the best ever filmed. It grabs you buy the balls and never lets up after that.





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